From Beetle to Bar

For those of you out there who only know me as “the guy that talks about cows”, I also compete semi-professionally as a lumberjack.  This explains why I’m suddenly going to talk about the impact a beetle, specifically it’s larvae, has had on the logging industry.

I’ll assume that everyone knows what a chainsaw is and that they are a vital tool in the timber industry.  Before the development of the chainsaw trees were felled and bucked (cut down and cut into log length pieces) with axes and cross-cut saws. 

Chainsaw chain on the guide bar.  Picture credit Trevor Beaudry

Chainsaw chain on the guide bar.  Picture credit Trevor Beaudry

Technically the first ever chainsaw was the osteotome a surgical tool invented around 1830. It had teeth mounted to a chain that was turned by a hand crank.  The tool was used in the orthopedic field.  The first “modern” chainsaw was developed in 1926 by a German engineer by the name of Andreas Stihl.  It was an electric powered saw weighing in at 106lbs and required two operators,  it was used in log yards at sawmills to buck the logs to length.  The first gas-powered chainsaw was produced by the Stihl Company in 1929 weighing 101lbs and also requiring two operators.  Soon, others began making chainsaws and their use became widespread especially after World War II. 

Close up view of a tooth on a chainsaw chain Photo credit Trevor Beaudry

Close up view of a tooth on a chainsaw chain Photo credit Trevor Beaudry

The drawback with these early saws was the cutter teeth themselves.  They required large amounts of filing and maintenance and were inefficient.  This is where the beetle comes in.  The story goes that Joe Cox was out splitting wood one day when he paused for a bit and started watching a timber beetle larvae cutting through a stump.  The larva was cutting both across and with the grain of sound wood (not rotten) with astonishing ease.  Upon further inspection Joe noted the opposing C shaped jaws of the larvae and decided to try to adapt the design to be used in chain saw chain.  He succeeded and debuted the Cox Chipper Chain in 1947. 

This new chain cut faster and more efficiently than the old style.  The new style chain also stayed sharp for a much longer time.  This greatly improved the productiveness and efficiency of the chainsaw. 

Personally, I find it really neat that a body part that evolved over many years in a larvae was able to be readily adapted to be used as part of a tool while massively increasing its’ efficiency.  This is a great example of biomimicry at work.  Biomimicry is when humans imitate something they see in nature and adapt it to solve complex problems.  Cox Chipper Chain or some variant of it is used in chainsaws to this day.


A Brief History of Chainsaws.

The History of the Chainsaw.

Stihl Company History.